Observant Jews have no right under federal law to install small scrolls known as mezuzot outside the doors of their condominiums, a federal appeals court declared yesterday.
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, 2-1, that the condominium association at Shoreline Towers in Chicago did not run afoul of the Fair Housing Act when managers removed the religious items pursuant to a rule barring the placement of signs, shoes, mats, and any other sort of object outside residents' doors.
"The hallway rule ... is neutral with respect to religion," Judge Frank Easterbrook, joined by Judge William Bauer, wrote. "It bans photos of family vacations, political placards, for-sale notices, and Chicago Bears pennants."
Judge Easterbrook said the Fair Housing Act requires accommodation for the handicapped, but outlaws only discrimination with regard to other protected groups. "We cannot create an accommodation requirement for religion (race, sex, and so on). Our job is not to make the law the best it can be, but to enforce the law actually enacted," he wrote.
In dissent, Judge Diane Wood said enforcement of the rule amounted to a "constructive eviction" of observant Jewish residents, as well as an effective bar on Jews moving into the housing complex. "Hallway Rule 1 operates exactly as a redlining rule does with respect to the ability of the owner to sell to observant Jews. No such person could buy a unit at Shoreline Towers," she wrote. "The Association might as well hang a sign outside saying 'No observant Jews allowed.'"
The case was brought by Lynne Bloch and her children, Helen and Nathan, who live in three units at Shoreline Towers and had mezuzot on their doors until 2004. After a renovation, building managers began removing the items, once doing so while the family was at funeral services for Marvin Bloch, Mrs. Bloch's husband and the father of the two children. The cat-and-mouse game of installing and removing the mezuzot continued until 2005, when the board created a religious exception and the city of Chicago enacted an ordinance guaranteeing the right to such religious displays.
"This is going to be a very troubling decision," an attorney for the American Jewish Congress, Marc Stern, said. "As more and more people live in cities in this sort of housing, this has a very real, substantial impact."
Mr. Stern said New Yorkers have little, if any, protection against similar acts. In 1994, a New York appeals court ruled that the installation of electronic locks on an apartment building did not amount to discrimination against Orthodox Jews who would not use them on the Sabbath.
Helen Bloch said she is considering appealing to the full bench of 7th Circuit or the Supreme Court. "There was an intentional act to discriminate against us," she said.
Judge Wood also criticized the condominium association for filing a brief that accused the plaintiffs of trying to get a "pound of flesh" from the group. She noted that the reference comes from Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" and pertains to the human collateral insisted upon by a nefarious Jewish moneylender, Shylock, who is later punished by being forced to convert to Christianity.
"This is hardly the reference someone should choose who is trying to show that the stand-off ... was not because of the Blochs' religion, but rather in spite of it," she wrote.